A review of Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It by DBC Pierre

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Release the Bats
DBC Pierre
Faber
ISBN: 9780571283187, August 2016, Paperback

DBC Pierre’s writing book is like his fiction – a bit bizarre, purplish, chaotic, and often brilliant. Release the Bats is inspirational, making it clear that anyone can be a writer regardless of circumstance, and that literature is all about the interplay of worlds (internal/external; the gap between chaos and the ideal). The book provides a welter of ideas and tools and does so in a surprisingly coherent manner. It’s surprising because the book has a tendency to ramble, philosophise in extended and often convoluted metaphors, explode into digression, and slide into memoir, with Pierre using his own experiences as an example of how and in what ways his tools work. All of these things make for an interesting read, and if they occasionally provide confusion to the central thrust of Pierre’s teaching, it’s not necessarily unwelcome. Pierre’s experiences or even his digressions from both experience and ‘how-to’ are part of the package.

The weaving of memoir and writing advice is surprisingly deft, and of course is not without precedent. Stephen King’s On Writing does something similar although with far fewer expletives, a bit more linear, and somewhat different advice (though not completely). In both books there’s a definite discarding of the notion of pre-plotting, and as someone whose plots tend to only work after the first draft is completed, I took heart from the advice here to write freely at the start, letting the characters develop their own messes. In Pierre’s case, his life has been rather a wild ride, from an upbringing that spanned several countries (though mostly taking place in Mexico), his early ‘career’ as a forger, his extensive drug addiction and ensuing massive debts, to Booker prize winning author and visiting writer at a high-security prison in Berlin – the event that inspired Release the Bats. Pierre draws uses his colourful biography and observations to good effect in this book, showing the reader as much about how ‘reality works’, the lies of the media and governments, perception, and psychology as about writing, though his writing clearly draws from these observations:

This is the world we have to fictionalise plausibly, a place where, for all intents and purposes, no closely examined story lives up to its accepted history. There’s plenty of elbow room for us in there. (154)

Probably the most unusual chapter is chapter ten, on how to best use drugs to fuel your writing. You’re unlikely to find this advice anywhere else, and Pierre doesn’t soften his stance either for the sake of any children reading: “In our job we can now say they are tools not for running amok with either, except on a page. So fuck off.” (83) The drugs described include music, sex, alcohol, caffeine (“We want o be perky for the job”), cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, opium, hallucinogens, fatigue and routine. I’m sure most people will have at least tried one of those, though calling ‘fatigue’ a drug might be pushing the envelope, unless you’re tired to hallucination point.

There’s a fair helping of anarchist philosophy embedded in the work, and the parentheses and extended metaphors can often be irritatingly confusing as they move further and further away from the book’s structural themes. However, word for word, this is an incredibly quotable read with enough incisiveness to cut through any digressions:

As if in opening a window in some direction, other receptors sense it and reach inside. Our choice of story, however spontaneous it might seem, probably flows from an existing instinctive relationship with its theme, expressed as a like or interest, whether we know and admit it or not (69)

Taken as a whole, the book provides extensive wisdom through its pages, and though not all of it is clean (that’s ‘DBC’ for you), there’s plenty to learn, even outside of the toolbox section on creating structure (best done after the first draft), drama, dialogue, characterisation, denouement, suspense and world building, all of which are addressed in the book. The book ends with a very simple overview of thirty two “mind bites” – with just a few words for each chapter to serve as a refresher. I’m not sure that all of them will be helpful (“A shitstorm looms. Get writing.”), but they’re all fun and helpful to use post-read, or as Pierre suggests, to ‘stick up’ on the wall for times when the muse needs a bit of a push. Certainly Release the Bats is an unconventional writing book. Though there are chapters specifically on all the key aspects of writing fiction, and these are very well written and valuable, the real wisdom and inspiration is scattered through parentheses.  Release the Bats is a worthwhile and innovative addition to the writing ‘how to’ guides that won’t disappoint anyone looking for new inspiration and Pierre fans will particularly enjoy it.

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